Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

by Nancy Bestor

I’m a planner. I like to know what I’m going to be doing two hours from now, two days from now, and two weeks from now. When traveling, I like to have seen the hotels I’ll be staying at ahead of time. I like to read restaurant reviews prior to dining, and I like to know how far I’m going to be traveling to my next destination. Spontaneity is not really in my vocabulary.

But alas, travel plans don’t always go the way we expect. Hotel pictures are frequently deceiving, and a good restaurant review on Yelp doesn’t guarantee a good meal. And then there’s weather – it seems that Mother Nature often has a mind of her own. Thus, sometimes you’ve just got to make lemonade out of lemons.

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When Bob and I were in New Zealand earlier this year it was their “summer.” The weather wasn’t hot, rather it was mostly very pleasant. But when we got to Franz Josef, a town on the Western coast of the South Island of New Zealand, a place we had pre-booked for three nights, it started raining. But it wasn’t just raining, it was pouring. Our plan had been to do lots of hiking in this beautiful part of the country. Franz Josef boasts two beautiful glaciers, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, as well as many other outstanding treks with stunning vistas. But did I mention that it poured? It rained so hard that many paths and walkways were completely washed out by flooding. And in addition to the rain, the stunning vistas were often shrouded by fog.

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But Bob and I agreed that we had no control over the weather (a shocking revelation, I know) and just figured we would play the cards that nature dealt us and get outside whenever the rain let up. New Zealand is incredibly organized for tourists. Each city we visited had amazing tourist offices, boasting great maps, the ability to make reservations for any kind of activity you wanted to do, and most importantly for us, the latest news on open tracks for hiking.

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One tourist office was directly across the street from our Franz Josef hotel, and we stopped in many times to get updates on hiking paths. The national park workers were diligent and worked as fast as they could to get paths (even makeshift ones) open for hiking, and detailed, up to date news was always available at the tourist office. Information such as “this path will be open at 3pm this afternoon, or another path at 10am tomorrow,” could not have been better.

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So even though the weather was iffy, we hiked anyway.  Yes, our hikes were cold, wet and foggy, but we dressed appropriately, and every now and then the clouds would break and we’d get a stunning view of the glaciers. We may not have been able to see the perfect reflection of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman in the still waters of Lake Matheson, but we got to pose for a great kiss on a beautiful walking bridge with no one around to bother us. And perhaps we didn’t get as up close and personal to the primary viewpoint of Franz Josef Glacier, because the path had completely washed away, but we did get up close and personal to some beautiful sheep on a hike along Gillespie’s Beach. This hike had an awesome miner’s tunnel too, at the end of a jungle-like hiking trail.

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I dare say our three days in Franz Josef with inclement weather worked out just perfectly. It turns out our lemonade was really delicious.

I’m Gonna Pack My Suitcase

by Nancy Bestor

img_4489Bob and I almost never check our bags. It’s not that I am worried about lost luggage. And it’s not because I don’t want to pay the checked bag fee. The real reason is that at the end of my trip, when home is ever so close, I don’t want to wait  the 15 interminable minutes it takes for bags to come off the carousel at the Medford Airport. Er…excuse me. The Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.
I’m always surprised at how long it takes. The airplane is really just a short distance from the baggage carousel at our little “International” airport. And when I’m tired and just want to get home, the 15 minutes seems like 45.

But, unfortunately, there are times when checking a bag is necessary. Last month on our cycling trip to Jordan was one such time. We needed to bring lots of our own equipment—bike helmets, bike shoes, bike pedals, etc., etc. So we paid to check one bag on Alaska Airlines down to San Francisco, before catching our international flight via Turkish Airlines, where a checked bag is still free. We also had to pay for our return from SFO back to Medford. The cost was $25 each way. Alaska conveniently lets you pay for your checked bag when you check-in online, 24 hours or so before your flight, AND print your luggage tag right at home. This saves time at the airport, as we did not have to wait in line with other travelers who were checking in for the same flight. Alaska also provides a plastic reusable bag tag holder at the airport, and we simply slipped our tag into the holder, attached it to our bag, and handed the bag to an agent. You can even request up to four reusable holders to be mailed to you in advance on Alaska’s website.

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We did indeed have to wait 15 long minutes for our bag to come off the carousel in Medford. But what are you going to do? Patience is a virtue, or so I’ve heard.

Workin’ on our Night Moves

by Nancy Bestor

Bangkok is busy seemingly at all times of the day and night. Like many other Asian cities, locals seem to live a lot of their lives outdoors. Thus people are everywhere, and when you combine that with the tuk-tuks, taxi’s, autos, delivery trucks, motorbikes and more, the city is bustling.

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So a night bicycle tour of Bangkok, although rated easy due to its flat terrain and approximately eight miles of riding, is a bit challenging. But based on the experience Bob and I had on the tour earlier this year, it is very much worth the challenge.

We booked our evening tour through Grasshopper Adventures. The three and a half hour experience cost about $36 per person, and included a mountain bike with lights, helmet, guide, water, snacks, and insurance. The tour got rolling around 6pm, and right off the bat our “peleton” of ten cyclists was riding down busy alleys and narrow paths. Cars and people didn’t really move out of the way for us, so we had to ride somewhat aggressively (a little hard for me) to maintain our position on the roads.

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We took our bikes on the ferry across the Chao Phraya River, Thailand’s biggest river, and traveled the back roads to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, and Wat Pho. Along the way we were cheered by children playing in the streets, high-fived by security officers, and gawked at by more than a few locals. It was awesome. A nighttime visit to the temples of Bangkok is a special experience. There are few, if any, tourists, and their stunning architecture is lit up to highlight ornate carvings and vivid colors.

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We also rode our bikes to, and even through, the Bangkok Flower Market (Pak Khlong Talat). It’s open 24 hours, but is busiest at night, when hoteliers and restauranteurs travel from far and wide to purchase flowers for their establishments. The market was stunning, and we rode our bikes directly through some of its warehouses before parking on the street and walking the rest for a slightly slower and up close experience of its stalls. We also ate some delicious chicken satay from a street vendor.

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We rode down narrow alleys that would be difficult to navigate without a guide and Bob and I even got lost at one point. We had stopped to take a photo of a temple, and before we knew it, the rest of our group and guide was gone. We quickly pedaled one way and then another down a street outside the temple, but to no avail. A kind Thai woman hollered at us and pointed in the direction that our tour had gone, and we found our way back to the rest of our people.

This tour was definitely a highlight of our Bangkok stay, and it showed us another side of this busy city. I’m not sure I’d want to commute by bike in Bangkok, but I’d highly recommend a night tour by bike with Grasshopper Adventures.

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

by Nancy Bestor

Airlines tell us that most of the fares we purchase are “non-refundable.” But is there any wiggle room? Can the right customer service agent give you a full refund on an airline ticket if your story is really good, and you’re just the right helping of nice? I think so. Consumer advocate Chris Elliott says that while there is no “discernible pattern to the refunding of nonrefundable tickets, it does happen. Sometimes it happens with little fanfare, and other times it takes many phone calls and or letters, or the help of a consumer advocate like Mr. Elliott. It seems to me that at the very least, travelers who cancel a “non-refundable” ticket for a legitimate reason ought to contact their airline, and at least give it the old college try.

Over the years we’ve received a couple of refunds. Once when the airline changed our flight schedule in a manner that would have made it very tight to make our connecting flight. This took two phone calls and two emails to obtain. We also got a refund when a travel warning was issued by the US State Department for our destination. We did not have insurance, but the third customer service agent I spoke to on the phone had two children herself, and she understood where I was coming from. Notice I said the third agent? Yes, I called the airline three different times, because I didn’t like the first two answers I received.

Perseverance seems to be a good trait to have if you are trying to get a refund from your airline. And contacting your airline’s customer service center both via phone and in writing is another good tip. And being nice should go without saying too. Because nice is always bound to get you more than crabby.

Now That I’ve Found You I Won’t Let You Go

by Nancy Bestor

noserviceI can remember in great detail every single thing I (and my children) have left on a plane. I can see each item clearly in my brain—Sarah’s pink aloha Hawaii purse with a disposable camera inside, left on the return from our first trip to Hawaii (many tears were shed). My black lightweight Royal Robbins windbreaker, left on a return trip from the Bahamas. And, most recently, my iPhone 5, left on a late night, homeward bound flight from Las Vegas.

I didn’t put my phone into the seat pocket. No, it was sitting on my lap, and after an exhausting day and a half at a trade show in Vegas—one of my least favorite cities—I fell asleep, and when I woke up to get off the plane, my phone must have slipped off my lap and in between the seats. My foggy brain didn’t notice until I got home an hour later. I called Alaska Airlines immediately, figuring the chances that the plane was still in Medford were pretty good, and how hard really would it be for someone to check my seat (I knew the number) for my phone? Well, apparently it is pretty hard. While Alaska kindly took all my contact information down, and said they would get in touch if they found my phone, I never heard back.

I have to admit, I was so sure they’d quickly find my phone that I did nothing to acquire a new one. I did not buy one, and did not even borrow a phone until several days had gone by. I was (gasp!) OFF THE GRID for several days. But after four days, my Snapchat friends and Instagram followers were calling loudly to me, so I borrowed a phone from a friend, still sure that mine would be found ANY MINUTE and I would not have to buy a brand new and quite pricey iPhone 6S.  But after two weeks with a borrowed phone, I decided the travel gods (or the techno gods, or maybe the spirit of Steve Jobs himself) were trying to tell me it was time to upgrade my 3 ½ year old phone to a new model, so I bit the bullet and bought a new one.

Fast forward six months. I’ve adapted to my new-fangled phone, and indeed am happy that I had an excuse to upgrade. Bob and I are sitting at our dinner table, when we get a call from………you guessed it, Alaska Airlines’ Luggage Recovery Center in Seattle. “Hi this message is for Nancy. I’m calling in reference to an iPhone left on an Alaska Airlines plane back in March. We do have it here in central baggage. I know it’s been quite a long while! Please give us a call so we can arrange to get this back to you.”

So I called back the next day and when I told the Alaska Airlines employee that I was returning a call regarding a phone that had been found six months after I left it on a plane, she responded with “Wow, you have got to be kidding me!” She told me they would Federal Express my phone back to me that day, and when I interjected with “I’ve got to ask you a question,” before I could even get the question out, she replied, “I have no idea. It does sometimes take a while for lost items to make their way up here to our recovery center.” They recover hundreds of lost/forgotten phones, she said. And each one has to be charged up and then investigated to determine which phones belong to which customers that have filed claims. But as to why it took six months for this to happen? She had no idea.

My old iPhone did indeed arrive via Federal Express the next day. And it sits on my dresser, feeling neglected, waiting for someone to pick it up and use it. So, this story did indeed have a happy ending, for all involved. Except my old, and now quite lonely, iPhone 5.

Penguins Are So Sensitive to My Needs

by Nancy Bestor

When planning our recent trip to New Zealand’s South Island, there was one activity on our “must do” list—an evening visit to see Blue Penguins (the world’s smallest penguin) return from a day of fishing at sea to their nesting burrows in Oamaru. Little did we know that a visit to Oamaru and the penguins would also mean that we would have our minds blown in a space-time travel gateway known as “The Portal” at Steampunk HQ. But first the penguins.

Blue penguins breed on the coastal mainland and islands of New Zealand and Southern Australia. Measuring about 30 cm (about 12 inches) tall, the penguins are not active on land in the day, as they are either at sea fishing or hiding in their nesting burrows. But just after dusk, groups of penguins arrive back from their hard day’s work, and waddle onto shore and up into the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. Owned by the local government, the facility started in 1992 as a safe harbor for the blue penguins, and now boasts more than 75,000 visitors a year. We booked well in advance, as the tour regularly sells out.

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Visitors have two options, “general entry”—seating in an outdoor viewing grandstand for 350 people—or “premium viewing” that offers seating much closer to the penguins and their route from the shore to their burrows. The difference in price was about $11 US dollars per person, ($31 compared to $20), but it is certainly worth it, as there was a huge difference in viewing distance!

Guides offered some information about the penguins before it got dark, but once dusk ended, no sound was allowed, to keep from scaring the penguins. No photos or electronic devices of any kind were allowed either, and it was astonishing to me how many times the guides had to ask people to put away their phones and cameras. One guide finally threatened a woman that he would throw her out if he saw her phone out of her purse again.

As the penguins waddled onto shore it was just as adorable as I expected it to be. The guides watched with binoculars as the groups swam toward shore, so we had warning when each group would arrive, and they seemed to travel in packs of 10-12. More than 75 came onto shore that evening, and they were a delight to behold. I wish I had photos to share with you (see paragraph above), but alas, I am not a rule breaker. We visited in early February, which is the tail end of the penguin season. During high season (December and early January), as many as 200 penguins come onto shore each night.

Another “attraction” of Oamaru is New Zealand’s premier Steampunk experience, Steampunk HQ. Before visiting New Zealand, I didn’t know exactly what Steampunk was. And after visiting Steampunk HQ, I still don’t know exactly what Steampunk is. Apparently, Steampunk started as a science fiction sub-genre. Today, in addition to literature, Steampunk is also used to describe fashion, art, architecture, and more. Steampunk HQ is a museum/gallery of sorts, but just like I can’t describe the term Steampunk very well, it’s also hard to describe HQ. It features exhibits, art, movies, and the above referenced space time travel gateway.

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When we bought our $7 entrance tickets, the Steampunk HQ host strongly advised us not to miss “The Portal,” a light machine that “transports you to alternate realities.” He told us once we experienced the Portal, we would want to go back in and do it again. He encouraged us to follow our instinct and take another trip. Without giving too much away, I’ll describe the Portal as an incredibly awesome light and sound experience. We loved it, and we were under the influence of no substances whatsoever.  We did indeed take a second, and then a third trip through the Portal. I can tell you without hesitation that the Portal alone is worth the price of admission to Steampunk HQ.

Oamaru is a cute, quaint and sleepy town. It’s worthy of a stop even if you don’t make it to the Penguin Colony or Steampunk HQ. But these two attractions elevate Oamaru to a must see when on a tour of New Zealand’s South Island.

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Notes:

  • We stayed at the Criterion Hotel, a simple historic hotel built in 1877, with rooms above a lovely bar and restaurant. Our room with private bath was about $80 a night. The hotel and pub are the cornerstone building at the edge of Oamaru’s restored Victorian precinct.
  • The two-block Victorian precinct is also home to many preserved buildings, and houses unusual shops, galleries and more. It’s a great browsing/shopping neighborhood. We ate some terrific savory pies at the Harbour Street Bakery, and sampled delicious locally made ice cream at Deja Moo.
  • We also ate a splendid Italian dinner at Cucina 1871. This was a popular spot, seemingly for both locals and tourists, and I’m still thinking about the Ricotta/Walnut/Pesto Ravioli I ate there.

Let’s Go To The Movies

by Nancy Bestor

img_0078On a recent rainy weekend in Portland, Bob, Emily and I spent a late afternoon in one of the Rose City’s many independent movie theaters, enjoying the new Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week. The movie, along with original footage of their complete 1965 Shea Stadium concert, was excellent, but equally outstanding was the fact that Cinema 21, along with many other movie theaters in and around Portland, serves beer that you can take right on in to the movie with you.

I vividly remember the first time Bob and I went to a movie theater that served beer. It was McMenamin’s Kennedy School in Portland. And not only do they serve beer at this former elementary school turned hotel/restaurant/bar/theater, they also serve pizza and offer couch seating. I was flabbergasted, but in a good way. A visit to the Kennedy School is well worth your while, even if you’re not going to a movie. The fabulous redesign of classrooms and such into a multipurpose establishment, complete with a detention bar, warrants a visit.

On another occasion we saw What We Do in the Shadows—a mockumentary about vampires—at the Hollywood Theater, where they’ve put in high narrow “cocktail tables” between each row, that offer the perfect spot to set your beverage and popcorn.

Perhaps it’s the novelty (for me at least, not for most Portlanders), but if beer is on offer when I’m going to the movies, I can’t really NOT get one. I recognize that beer and movies together might not work for every theater. As a theater owner, f you have to limit your clientele to 21 and over, you lose a significant share of the movie going public. But beer, popcorn, and a movie? As an adult with adult children, this is a movement I can get behind.